Posted tagged ‘tribunals’

Finding our ethical compass

June 28, 2008

This morning I attended a meeting here in DCU at which our new Professor of Ethics, Dr Bert Gordijn, posed some very interesting questions. What, he asked, are the key ethical issues being debated publicly in Ireland, and who is leading the debate? And what are the taboo issues that are not being debated, and why not? This prompted a lively and interesting discussion amongst those present, and one of the recurring themes was whether in Ireland we really debated ethical issues at all.

All of this is worth dwelling on for a minute. We all know that the Ireland of 2008 is a very different country from that of 1978 or even 1988. Back in those days there were strong institutional influences – chiefly the church (or churches) – that fairly successfully entrenched, or appeared to entrench, a code for both private and public life. This code was strongest in what were euphemistically called ‘social issues’, which were really issues of sexual morality. 

This apparently dominant framework came under pressure, first from the various referendum campaigns of the 1980s on divorce and the right to life; the referendum results appeared to reinforce the old order, but not quite overwhelmingly, and the debates opened to public view alternative perspectives that got significant air time. There then followed the era of scandals, in business and in public life and later the church. And all that pushed us into the age of the tribunals of inquiry, which revealed all sorts of doubtful conduct and significantly enriched a large group of lawyers along the way, mostly at the taxpayer’s expense.

In the 1990s I was working in England, and I remember returning to Ireland one June early in that decade on an Aer Lingus plane, and as we were coming in to land at Dublin airport, the pilot (who was in jovial mood) quipped that we could be confident we were landing in Ireland because it was raining heavily and because the newspaper headlines were all about the Beef Tribunal. And in fact, any visitor to Ireland since then can have been confident that they would be able to read about this or that tribunal of inquiry during any given year, and probably still for some time to come. It’s hard to move on.

But is this how we need to behave in order to get a grip on ethical issues in Ireland? It often seems to me that we have started to see ethics through tabloid spectacles, and that we think morality is largely about identifying somebody else’s mistakes and then passing judgement on them. Immorality in this frame of reference is what ‘they’ have done, not what we do or what we tolerate. And so, while we still obsess about what happened in the planning of Quarryvale or whose money was used to buy a house in Drumcondra, we almost completely ignore much wider issues about business ethics, poverty, human rights, racism, and so forth; and this is probably because tackling these issues forces us to take a good look at ourselves, rather than pursuing the much more congenial pastime of condemning others. And despite my legal background, I don’t think that paying large fees to lawyers at the tribunals compensates for these omissions.

I am of the view that these tribunals have long outlived their usefulness, and far from helping us to create a more ethical society are actually serious obstacles to that end. We need to re-establish a sense of community that includes some shared understanding of ethics, an understanding that needs to be relevant to our own conduct in our daily lives. We need to be confident that those in positions of responsibility act in a morally upright manner, but we also need to be sure that we are doing so also, and that we have a society in which ethical behaviour is reinforced and valued. It is my hope that DCU’s Centre for Ethics and its new Professor will play a key role in that task.